Even if you’re a landscape photographer who has mastered the art of taking and editing photos, knowing how to plan and compose a shot, and consistently creating good images, you can reach a point where you feel like you’re done with your photography to be stuck. In this article, I share a way to break through that barrier to take your photography to the next level.
When I started taking landscape photos more than 10 years ago, I planned many photo tours around popular views and places. That was fun for a few years. I learned a lot, honed my technique, and even occasionally came out with a photo that caught the eye. But landscape photography is more than creating the same images over and over again.
I get a lot of inspiration from learning and discovering new things. In the beginning it came from learning photography and editing techniques. Then I focused on improving my compositions and experimenting with new angles. It also helped to meet other photographers and see how they work.
But in recent years it has become increasingly difficult for me to progress with my photography. What has helped me stay motivated is investing time in finding new places and taking photos in places where it’s possible to express my own creative vision.
Take your photography to the next level
There are several ways to take your photography to the next level, and finding the right one depends largely on the stage you’re at. In the introduction to this article, I am addressing landscape photographers with some experience who have mastered the basics. For these, one way to improve is to get better at scouting, and below I’ll show you how this can help you get more out of known and unfamiliar photo spots.
Scout for new perspectives
Let’s start with popular photo locations. Before visiting, try to find photos of them on the various photo sharing platforms. This is nothing new and I’m sure many of you are doing it to plan your photography trips. But instead of recreating those photos later, do the opposite. Once you’ve seen the typical compositions from one perspective, make it your mission to find new perspectives. Taking the obvious compositions out of the equation forces you to get creative.
It can be a challenging exercise, and at some points you may not come up with anything original. Sometimes you have to admit that the popular ones are also the best compositions. But arriving at that conclusion after first exploring other angles available is still beneficial because it trains your photographic eye in the process.
Let me give you an example: the photo below shows the Vikos Gorge in Greece photographed from the Beloi viewpoint. If you google this viewpoint you will find many similar images. What they have in common: They were taken from the same narrow observation deck and have no foreground.
I went there with an hour before sunset. It allowed me to explore and find a more interesting view not far from the main viewpoint. Here I could highlight the characteristic layered rocks that you see all around the Vikos Gorge. The center of the image is made up of vibrant greens that provide the perfect color contrast to the magenta tones in the sky. All of these elements were missing from the other photo. The photo I took at Sarakiniko on Milos is another example. I put a lot of time into avoiding the typical compositions. Funnily enough, this rock formation is located near the entrance to the beach. But only after sunset was this composition revealed to me. Before that I had spent almost two hours studying the various rock formations along the beach for a possible photo. This brings me to the most important aspect of scouting popular photo locations: plan enough time and visit them at different times of the day if possible in order to experience these locations in a different light.
Look for new locations
As I wrote above, you will not always come up with something new if you only visit well-known photo locations. Finally, you might want to get a little more adventurous and keep an eye out for unfamiliar photo spots. You know from one of my previous articles that I like to do this over a run, but it’s not always possible. Sometimes there is not enough time, especially when a multi-day hike is required to reach an area of interest.
For me these unknown and more remote places are a great source of inspiration and I dedicated my second day in Vikos Gorge to one of these places. In the feature video, I show how I plan my hike into the unknown and give five tips for scouting to be successful:
First of all, you should plan such an exploratory tour properly. I use a mixture of Google Maps, Google Earth, OpenTopoMap and outdooractive. The result of such planning is GPS coordinates for viewpoints I want to visit and a map for the hike, including elevation gain.
During the hike, keep an open mind to explore the views along the way. Document this with your cell phone. Once you reach the destination, you can compare it to the views you’ve passed and choose the one that’s best for photographing, then head there for sunset or sunrise.
These scouting photos alone are not enough. Use apps like PhotoPills and its augmented reality view to check the sun’s path. It gives you an idea of how the light will develop at a potential photo spot. Avoid choosing a view to photograph for which there is no chance of adequate light.
As the trek takes you more and more into the wilderness and the trails begin to disappear, ask yourself when it’s time to stop or even turn back. You need to be aware of your skills and wayfinding skills. Don’t overestimate yourself and always remember to walk these trails after dark if you’re staying in a spot for the sunset.
Finally, it’s always good to have a backup plan. If your exploratory hike doesn’t uncover the views you want, it’s good to have something else to photograph as the day draws to a close.
I didn’t need a backup plan for my hike in Vikos Gorge. On the way I found a beautiful view. An hour before sunset the light was perfect to photograph.
I did another trek into the unknown a few years ago in Colombia. It brought me to this scene of a cluster of palm trees surrounded by thick clouds, high up in the mountains of Santa Marta.
The great thing about these photos is that they are your own. You won’t be distracted by other images you may have seen online of a location while composing your shots. You will be able to express your own creative vision and this is a great way to improve your photography.